Top Drug Policy Reformers Weigh the Impact of Historic Marijuana Wins—And Donald Trump

Nov 09 2016

Top Drug Policy Reformers Weigh the Impact of Historic Marijuana Wins—And Donald Trump

November 9th, 2016

On a day of extreme mixed feelings, some of the architects of last night’s string of state-level marijuana legalization victories reflected on the significance of those wins—as well as the implications of a Donald Trump presidency.

“California was obviously a monumental victory,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. He and his organization have led and supported legalization efforts across the country for over 20 years. Massachusetts and Nevada voted to legalize too, while at publication time Maine looked to have voted narrowly in favor, with a recount still possible. [Update, Nov. 10: It has just been confirmed that Maine voted to legalize.]

Nadelmann noted as a yardstick how the adult-use legalization wins came in blue or blue-ish states—only red Arizona voted against—while Arkansas, Florida and North Dakota all backed medical marijuana measures and Donald Trump.

There’s no doubt that legalization has huge momentum, so where will it take us?

“New Hampshire or Vermont could be next,” Nadelmann predicted—and if so, they’d be the first states to legalize through their legislatures, rather than via popular votes. “I think we’ll then see states like Michigan and maybe Ohio move forward with ballot initiatives in 2018 or 2020.”

But it’s impossible to celebrate unreservedly, given the national political context.

“The prospect of Donald Trump as our next president concerns me deeply,” Nadelmann said. Trump, of course, is “totally unpredictable on this issue—although he did promise to respect state marijuana laws.”

And Trump’s allies—people like Rudolph Giuliani and Chris Christie, potential nominees for Attorney General or the Supreme Court, with their regressive views on drugs—concern Nadelmann every bit as much as the president-elect himself. Christie, for example, promised during his Republican presidential primary campaign: “If you’re getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it. As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws.”

Tamar Todd, DPA’s director of legal affairs, was one of those involved in the drafting of California’s Prop. 64, which her organization sees as a “gold standard” for marijuana legislation because of its comprehensive social and racial justice provisions.

Todd doesn’t see the Trump administration conducting raids as an immediate major threat, as “99 percent of marijuana enforcement happens on state or local level, so there’s very little the federal government can do.” But she warned: “Where they could really cause disruption and uncertainty is trying to interfere with the regulatory piece.”

“I don’t think we’re going to have quite the same green light coming out of the new administration,” Nadelmann summarized. With Republicans controlling both the House and Senate, “there are still various ways to throw a wrench in the works when it comes to marijuana legalization and other states doing it. The momentum is with us, but it’s not a lock just yet.”

As DPA’s California state director, Lynne Lyman played a key role in one of the drug policy reform movement’s most spectacular wins. “We did it in a huge way,” she said. “It was immediately obvious when the polls closed that we had won.” A comfortable 56 percent of the popular vote saw 37 of the state’s 58 counties vote in favor, including counties such as San Bernadino, which has traditionally been skeptical.

She elaborated on Proposition 64’s enormous potential to reduce and mitigate criminal justice involvements in a state of nearly 40 million people. “It means up to 20,000 fewer people will be arrested next year and saddled with records.” And because Prop. 64 includes provision to address marijuana convictions retroactively, “more than 50,000 people currently serving time in county jails will have the opportunity to petition and possibly be released,” and “more than a million Californians will be eligible to have their records expunged.”

Lyman also spoke to what California’s decision represents in the context of Trump’s victory. “We have chosen something different in California,” she said. “We have not chosen Donald Trump—we have chosen laws that uphold the values of equality, justice and fairness.”

Although Todd acknowledged that Prop. 64 contains more racial justice components than the measures in Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada, she emphasized the need to fight to “create the inclusion of women and people of color” in all such initiatives, when “the racial disparities … are in every state and every county in the entire United States.”

She also noted efforts to make the three medical marijuana legalization measures that passed yesterday—in Arkansas, Florida and North Dakota—as broadly applicable as possible. “They’re more meaningful laws when they’re passed by the voters than the legislatures,” she said. “Some [medical marijuana] laws are so restrictive we don’t even count them.”

“All three [measures] allow access to the whole plant to people with a variety of medical conditions,” she pointed out. “Florida and North Dakota, for example, include PTSD.” Support for medical marijuana, Todd added, is now “overwhelming across party and regions of the country.”

However, new laws are one thing; real change on the ground is another.

“It didn’t end last night,” warned Lyman. “We know that implementation of any kind of reform is always hard—sometimes harder than winning on election day. We know it’s a long-term fight and we’re ready for it.”

She listed some elements of this: “Making sure that people do get their sentences reduced, that cops are trained properly, that marijuana is no longer used as a tool to harass people of color.” And she added the importance giving inclusive access to the huge profits generated by California’s legal market: “If we don’t, we’re going to end up with an industry controlled by white men.”

Doubling the number of states with adult-use marijuana and creating an outright majority of medical marijuana states is clearly a huge step forward in the US. But I asked Ethan Nadelmann what he thinks the impact will be internationally—both in terms of other countries potentially following suit and of the US government’s promotion of drug war policies.

Above all, he believes that California legalizing will bring about a “major transformation” in Mexico’s prospects for reform. “When I talk to allies and government officials in Mexico, they all talk about when California legalizes marijuana—that’s the thing that looms so large in the Mexican consciousness.”

When President Enrique Peña Nieto came to speak at the UNGASS world drugs summit in April, Nadelmann said, “that was driven almost entirely by the prospect of California legalizing.” From Mexico’s perspective, events across the border will intensify questioning, he said, of why the country is “spending money and resources on an un-winnable drug war.”

The impact will also, he believes, “be felt throughout Central and Latin American, in the Caribbean and even internationally. Because a lot of people around the world don’t know what Colorado and Washington are—everyone’s heard of California.”

“The only caveat,” he added, “is once again the Trump administration—it’s very unpredictable.”


Will Godfrey is the editor-in-chief of The Influence. You can follow him on Twitter: @GodfreyWill.